And so the day finally came.
I can’t really say I was in the best of shapes. And that isn’t to get a quick excuse in early. The race itself was on the third day of a four day weekend trip to London, and on the Friday and Saturday, we had already been hurtling ourselves around Central London by tube and foot at a fairly breakneck pace, walking about 10-12km a day. By the Saturday evening, the night before the race, I was feeling pretty tired. Consequently, we decided to crash out in our hotel room and watch the Eurovision Song Contest. There was a Papa John’s Pizza place across the road, so went to pick up a takeout and chill out.
Alas, as is my way, I worked my way through the lion’s share of an XXL pizza, as well as a couple or three starters, some New York baked cheesecake, and a good litre or so of soft drink. This wasn’t quite the sushi and mineral water that I had planned as part of my fuelling plan. I ended up sliding the empty pizza boxes to one side and collapsing on the bed whilst cradling my rotund core.
I had planned to get up early, at 7am, to go down to the hotel restaurant and get some breakfast inside me. However, the alarm went off, and by the time my eyes decided to open, it was 7.30am and I could instantly tell that my stomach had done a lousy job over the past 7 hours with digesting any of the pizza. Breakfast was going to have to be forgotten about. I did wolf down the remains of the cheesecake however, washed down with an equally sensible quantity of Sprite. Oh dear.
By 8.30am, I was dressed up in my gear and had managed to coax Sarah into a state of readiness. We were off.
The tube station was about 20 minutes walk from our hotel, which seemed like a decent warm up, and as we reached the station, I started to clock a number of other people who were clearly on the way to the startline too. Plenty of those passion pink t-shirts that all the cancer girls wear, and a number of unfit yet athletically dressed girls followed me onto the train. There was a clear lack of men at this stage.
By the time we emerged from the tube station at Green Park, it was evident that there were plenty of runners of both genders (a total of 10,700 runners, I later heard). As we wandered around the park and did our best to get our bearings, a man began to shout instructions over the tannoy system – “If you are a runner with a red number,” he began (which I was, causing my ears to prick), “you should already be in your pen and ready to run.”
It was only 9.30am, and it was my impression that the race didn’t kick off until 10.00am. Instantly, my adrenaline kicked in as I was having flashes of missing my start and missing the race. Nobody would believe me if I told them the race started early. I yanked my race number card out of Sarah’s handbag and fumbled with the safety pins as I panicked and failed to attach it to my chest. I took a breath and let Sarah sort it out, before I gave her a nod, told her to meet me at the same part of the park at about 11.10am, and I set off for the startline.
After passing a lucozade tent and grabbing a horridly warm bottle of Orange Sport, I pushed my way through several dozen pockets of those really annoying meandering crowds, and after about 10 minutes I emerged at the other end of the park and saw some large banners pointing to my pen. I resumed my shoving and reached the pen at 9.42am. Though nothing was happening.
Turns out tannoy man was just eager to get everyone locked in their pens, as he then – with appropriate timing – announced that the race start was still 18 minutes away. Thanks, tannoy man. I was now in the middle of The Mall, stood in the baking heat of the May heatwave with no shade, spare my little running cap. I decided to drink half the lucozade in a bid to up my fluids, as I could feel the salty pizza cheese still sitting at the back of my throat and causing me some pangs of thirst.
The race pen began to fill up, and became clear that the “Red B” group really were the sort who were planning to run a 44 minute 10K. Most were wearing those ridiculous looking baggy racing vests. They were all tinkering with their race watches and doing various different stretches. In the meantime, I think I stood on my tiptoes a couple of times, theorising that that might get my calf muscles warm. Maybe?
After some more waiting and sweating, tannoy man started to announce the arrival of some D-list celebrities in a pen of their own at the front of the pack. A couple of newsreaders, some soap starts, the usual stuff. And then there were various claps and cheers for the arrival of Mo Farah and a number of other elites. The cheers suddenly drew my attention to a fairly large crown built up on either side of the mall, staring at us all like I imagine cattle feel as they are lead around an auction floor.
Before I knew it, the elites were off, the big clock over the start line was ticking, and everyone was pushing forwards towards the front of the pen. The rope was dropped, and everyone started pushing and shoving their way onward. I flicked on my walkman, activated my GPS watch, and took a deep breath.
The run down The Mall was like a mad dash for survival, sort of like the start of the Hunger Games when everyone runs off into the forest (damn, I just revealed I’ve seen the Hunger Games). Unsurprisingly, the pace was brisk. Everyone was doing a pace (as per my watch) around 4:45/km, which would, funnily enough, put them bang on target for a 44 minute finish. However, I was a ticking time bomb. I was inadequately trained, hot, sweaty and full of Papa John’s “The Works” pizza. I’m quite sure that everyone else around me was galloping along with stomachs full of protein shakes and egg whites.
With deep breaths, I managed to keep up for maybe the first kilometre or so, however by the time the race took me down to the embankment, I was ready to take a gulp of my warm lucozade and take a breather. This is where races differ from training. If you stop in training, it’s fine, but in a race, you have about 9,000 or so people breathing down your neck from behind, who very possibly might suddenly come bearing down on you if you stop in their path. Plus, and much worse, is the cheering crowd. By the time I came to a slow jog for the first time, moving to the side of the road, I was passing by a big group of cheering mums, shaking some sort of balloons that must have been handed out. There is nothing worse than having a group of women shake balloons in your face when you, they, and everyone else is acutely aware that you’ve slowed down and you’re tired and could do with some alone time.
However, after an awkward 20 or so seconds, I sped up again. And down. And up. And down. And so on and so forth, until even the four year olds sat on the pavements looking at me could tell that I had no real clue about pacing. I was spamming the turbo button until it ran out, and then waiting for it to fill up again before holding it down all over again.
A water stop eventually came up in an underpass, at which time I took another breather, threw away the remainders of my lucozade and grabbed a slightly chilled bottle of water. Everybody else was taking a quick gulp and launching their 500ml bottles all over the place. It was a warzone. If you weren’t struck by a bottle, you were lucky that you weren’t tripped up by one rolling around. I think I spent the next 300 metres doing a weird hopping dance whilst I stared at the floor and did my best to stay upright.
It was now about 4km in, and about 22 minutes or so had gone by. The time wasn’t bad, and my average pace was looking fairly decent at less than 6 minutes, and consequently a finish time before the hour mark, but I was feeling rubbish. I wasn’t enjoying the race, the sensation of being endlessly overtaken, and the fact that the crowds were constantly staring at my rubbish demonstration. By this point, my brain was seeking out those wonderful “Plan B” options. I ran past an ambulance station, and my brain calculated the process involved in faking a limp and getting carried back to Sarah. However, they were busy enough handing out globs of vaseline, so I forgot that one. At another point, there was a clear gap in the railings and crowds, and I could have just ran into the City. But I had no cash or Oyster card, so I wasn’t sure what I would do. Eventually, 5km came around, and I was turning back to face my destination, and regardless of any plans, they all would require me going the same way, so I concluded I may as well run it.
At 6km or so, I slowed down in unison with another guy. He asked me what the time was, as he wasn’t wearing a watch. It was about 36 minutes I think, and we both joked about how tough we were finding it in the heat. He asked if he could run with me for a while, so I put on a brave face and played pacemaker for about 500 metres, before slowing down again. He slowed down with me and told me his name was Jeremy (not his actual name, changed for this blog), and I shook his hand, enjoying the excuse to maximise some slow-time.
After this point, we kept setting little goals, like “let’s run for 3 minutes more”, or “let’s run to that bridge over there”. We bitched about how long it took to get to the next water stop at 7.5km, and ended up chatting some more. He was from London, and ended up getting the wrong impression that I’d run the Great North Run (don’t ask how). All was well until he said, “I didn’t think I’d be here; this time last year I was paralysed after an accident on holiday.” Well shit, there I was thinking we were similar. “Well, 12 months ago, I was fat,” I decided was my best reply.
We parted ways at 9km, deciding to tackle the home straight on our own terms, and I ended up bumping into him after the finish line and saying goodbye. I dare say Jeremy got me through the second half of the race in one piece, mentally at least.
The heat had been horrible, almost unbearable on the second leg along the river. The day before there had been a brilliant breeze along the Thames, but today it was still and the air was hot and dry. The last water stop had been long forgotten (even though the water guys did very kindly crack some bottles open and spray everyone as they ran past – really cool idea, literally) and I was now constantly keeping my eye on my watch to see how long I had to go.
My legs buckled a bit near Westminster, but as I reached The Mall once again, I managed to keep them moving and run across the finish line.
1.03 was my finish time.
Not amazing, I’ll grant you, and not 44 minutes. Nor was it the 53 minutes that my work colleague did it in, as I later learned, but for me, on a scorching hot day (27 degrees, plus the urban microclimate) with a belly full of pizza, it was a result. As the goodie bag was thrust into my hands and I felt the medal inside, I felt I’d done enough to deserve it.
Yes, maybe I could have been running more instead of wandering along the water stop stretch, or chatting less to Jeremy (who, by the by, Sarah reckons was some mental coping mechanism, and was never really there. He was wearing white, so maybe he was a running angel or something?), but it was my first race, and I did what I did. I’m happy.
Would I run a race again? Honestly, I don’t know. I have no taste for the competitive element. I will never win a run, and that’s a simple fact. And I don’t need to run to get a finish time, because I have my GPS watch which constantly tells me what my times and performance looks like. If anything at all, I simply benefited from the company of a similarly capable soul who managed to keep my pace up and get me through the part of the race where I could have easily, and happily, given up.
Maybe, next time, if I’m in the correct pen with equally (in)capable runners, then I might feel better. Ask me the same question in a few months after I’ve run a bit more and I’ll let you know.
It’s an odd predicament now, as this race was the only purpose my running has had recently. Maybe I need a new target? Maybe I need a new race?